‘Upon this rock I will build my Church.” When Christ commissioned St Peter he demanded a Church which stood above the swirling seas of politics and society. Not only above the waters, but fixed in one place, a testament to eternal truth and a safe refuge for man. If he had wanted a Church which submerged itself, travelling on the currents of fashion for long intervals before appearing in an entirely new place, he would have built his Church on a whale.
That’s an image that returns to me again and again as the family synod draws to an end. The Church has a duty to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments. To do this it must stand as a witness to God’s truth, which is fixed and eternal. At the same time, it is a human institution and seems to have picked up some of the political spirit of the age.
A cadre of churchmen are forever searching for an immaculate compromise which would allow those hardened in sin to be brought back into the flock without the need for renunciation or reconciliation. This is particularly the case with marriage and the family. The synod debate has included calls for a more accommodating attitude towards polygamy, same-sex marriage and Communion for the remarried.
This attitude is pastorally negligent. The Church must call to repentance those who are in error. I should know: orthodoxy saved my life. I come from a wonderful family and had a very happy childhood with a strong, reciprocated and unconditional bond of love with my parents. I was baptised into the Church of England at eight and left school a decade later with the intention of working for a year before applying to read theology at university. I knew right from wrong and was decent.
Then I met an older woman and began an affair. Pride led me to believe I could go wrong in one aspect of life without compromising my overall integrity. This isn’t an unusual belief: I have seen it in so many divorced men whose fling has seen them exiled from their family and their home. Perhaps the lesson in everything that follows is that nobody who chooses to descend even one step can control how far downwards the path will take them.
The older woman’s values and my own were not aligned, and because I had given way in one area, mine held nowhere. In quick succession I had gone into the City, dropped the theology idea, allowed my relationships with family to be distorted and abused, and become fully immersed in miserable, faith-free materialism.
One evening, sleeping next to this woman, I had a terrible dream. I use the word “dream” because the language lacks a better one – it had all the qualities of physical presence which a dream lacks.
I was conscious of being in an abandoned lunatic asylum: there was a huge full moon at the open window and a solitary swinging light in the corridor beyond the rusted bed on which I was lying. Against the chipped plaster of the wall was the only other item of furniture, a tall wooden cupboard. On top of the cupboard was a creature. I cannot describe what it looked like, only the effect: it was inordinately ugly. It said to me in a low, growling man’s voice: “I will have you.”
I was aware of a noise becoming louder as consciousness returned. It was the sound of my screaming. The woman rolled over to me and asked if I was all right. I nodded. She rolled back and began to snore.
I stayed perfectly still for some time, too terrified to move. I was filled with regret and understood with horrible clarity the love I had turned from and the pain I had caused. A rush of instinct told me to cross myself. It is was not something I had learnt from low Anglicanism and I had never attended a Catholic service in my life. Even so, it seemed the only protection available to me. I did so. The room was black and the woman was facing away from me and apparently asleep. As I completed the Sign of the Cross, she erupted into laughter. It was a sound that for a moment I couldn’t place. It was the gruff, deep laughter of a man.
From that evening on I have never doubted the existence of demons or the possibility of possession. That evening, more than any other, pushed me away from death and towards the Catholic Church.
I realised at that point that a battle was being waged for my soul. I needed God. A decade of loose Anglicanism had armed me only with an understanding of sin which was collective, economic and of this world. When that communion, and sadly ours in recent times, speaks of sin it talks of global warming, CO2, financial services, non-Fairtrade coffee. I was now faced with the reality of sin, which is personal, moral and eternal. I had chosen to ignore God’s word on sex belonging within marriage, and what fell out of that was a collapse into greed, a detachment from the unfailing love of my family, and a personal relationship built on hatred which had tarnished my soul. Only the Catholic Church, which was uncompromising in its identification and fight against personal sin, held out the possibility of reconciliation. It was to this that I now began turning.
The intervening years were kind. I left the relationship, returned to the incredible bond of love I have with my family and left the City for a place at university. I spent the summer before the first term in a tiny cabin atop a barren hill on a Greek island in complete solitude. There was nothing to do but heat cups of instant coffee on a portable hotplate, sit under the sun and stars, and think and pray.
I was received into the Catholic Church in my second year at university, but by that time complacency had dried out my faith into an intellectual one. The Church’s teaching on relationships rescued me from the brink with all number of odd people, but I was the Christian equivalent of a barrack-room lawyer, searching for loopholes and hardly living within the spirit of the rules.
That summer I spent some time in an investment bank and remember not recognising myself in the mirror afterwards. Greed disfigured me. I was physically gross: huge, soft and self-indulgent. Under the Jesuits at my university I took part in some of the Ignatian spiritual exercises, and what remains with me of that time is the anger of Jesus as he looked at his son to whom much had been given and from whom nil was returned.
In penitence, I walked to Rome. Each day I walked and prayed and felt life returning. When I knelt in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary at San Quirico d’Orcia on the day of its decennial parade through the town, the last barriers dropped and the light flooded in.
When I arrived in Rome, a kind priest at the Vatican took me down to St Peter’s tomb. We sat afterwards in an adjacent chapel and talked. “As a young man, I’d like you to promise me one thing,” he said. “Do not live with a woman before you marry.”
God bless that priest. It is one promise I have kept. Life subsequently took me to Fleet Street, but I disliked having to make each article nuanced as opposed to truthful. So I left that and went to Africa. I wanted to be away from the fury and the noise of London, alone to submit to God. It was there that I met my wife, who is also British.
We married a month ago. She has that transcendent beauty that you sometimes find in priests – a pure soul and a happy face. The values she admires in me are really the values of the Church, and the depth of our love is a reflection of the respect which the period before we married conditioned us to treat one another with. I have spent a decade falteringly trying to meet the standard the Church expects, but now I am here I see that each sacrifice is repaid a thousandfold. Compromise with sin is not possible.
Not for the individual. Not for the Church. “What therefore God has put together, let no man put asunder” is an unequivocal teaching, as are those on sexuality and polygamy. If we compromise this then not a soul is saved and many more are lost as we become complicit with hardened sin rather than its steadfast opponents.
One of the miracles of the faith is God’s ability to make good what has been corrupt. The sinner who truly repents is still a cause of jubilation in heaven. It is no coincidence that the Devil’s advocates on earth are always trying to recreate Eden. From the Fall follows the sacrifice of the Cross and our salvation. God’s mercy is always open to us, and that is why the Church has a sacred duty to ensure we understand when we require it.
The arc of human history suggests that periods of moral laxity are always followed by periods of moral retrenchment. This time it seems unlikely. The whole force of mass culture is arrayed against the Christian view of marriage and the family. Music and television offer a relentless call to promiscuity.
If churchmen survey this field of broken humanity and believe that pastoral duties are best served by collusion then they are gravely mistaken. On so many occasions when I was sick to my soul, I would have given anything for the Church to have said: “You’re basically a good guy, you’ll be fine.” I owe the deep happiness and relationship with God I have now to the fact that it didn’t.
I owe my marriage, too. As I was writing this the photographs from the wedding arrived. Sometimes pictures do tell the whole story: grace descending and joy unbound. My love for my wife brings God into my home and heart. She has softened my perspective on the world and brought me peace. I am blessed. But I am blessed only because the Church loved me enough to say “no”, to stop me from detaching myself from Him. I beg those at the synod not to deprive others of the hard but true love we find in orthodoxy.
TA Pascoe is a writer from south-east England
This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (23/10/15)
Take up our special subscription offer – 12 issues currently available for just £12!